Dispatches > The Buzz


Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003
from bad to worse
"I stand a better chance of being hit by a bus!" says Beijing resident Holly Gerberich. But statistics are no comfort when it comes to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The flu-like atypical strain of pneumonia is dominating the Chinese psyche in ways the Chinese Politburo only dreams of doing. Approximately 2,000 people have become infected with SARS in the city of 15 million. But after the Chinese government admitted it had deliberately covered up the number of SARS cases nationwide, and death rates from SARS spiked, Beijing residents took dramatic precautions. "Fear has our city in its grip," said Miss Gerberich, development officer for Operation Blessing Beijing. The government reported only 37 cases of SARS in Beijing until April 19, when it admitted the number of cases was actually 10 times that. Only days later, the government listed the number of infected in Beijing at 693, with 35 dead. Nationwide, one week after admitting it lied about the extent of infection, over 2,300 people were reported to have the virus, with 106 deaths. In less than a week, Beijing went from having a few cases of SARS to having the largest rate in the world. (Buried in the bad news: The World Health Organization reports over 1,200 people in China recovered from SARS.) The worldwide outbreak, which began in southern China and Hong Kong late last year, prompted WHO to list new travel warnings last week, including limits on travel to Beijing, Shanxi Province-and to Toronto. All have seen increases in the airborne virus and are known to be exporting it. Thousands of white-masked travelers crowded the capital train station to leave Beijing after officials closed schools and universities for two weeks. Party leaders are discouraging travel, and canceled a mandatory May 1 week-long holiday. Many want to flee anyhow. Traditional Chinese medicines and herbal teas vanished from pharmacy shelves. The antiseptic smell of sanitizer is pervasive, as city workers spray down walls, handrails, and floors. Works of charity and evangelism in the city are also suffering. Operation Blessing has canceled weekly visits to elderly homes and orphanages. Other agencies report that English-language training, a popular summer missions assignment, is on hold. Most groups are canceling any events that require traveling to or from the region.
totalitarianism's limits
Political fallout from SARS could be as great as its health risks. On April 19 Chinese health officials admitted they had mismanaged the outbreak and lied about the number of cases-an unprecedented admission in the communist regime's 54 years in power. The Communist Party then fired the mayor of Beijing and minister of health, who it said were responsible for the coverup. In the streets, however, they were referred to as "ti zui yang"-scapegoats. It is widely believed that the new government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao approved of the coverup, even though it was likely ordered last November, when President Jiang Zemin was still in power. Many do not believe the numbers they are hearing now, and health officials say the SARS spread may have been contained in China if it had been acknowledged sooner. The public shakedown could signal new and improved coping mechanisms for the Chinese government. If the mystery virus continues to multiply, so will the test for communist control.
house of cards
In Iraq, what was lost (or stolen or missing or buried in a deck of cards) is found. Last week, Saddam Hussein's head of military intelligence gave himself up to U.S. Army troops in Baghdad. Gen. Zuhayr Naqib was No. 21 on the U.S. list of 55 Iraqis wanted for their leading role in the regime. The same day three more senior officers left the dark side: Air defense commander Muzahim Sa'b Hassan Tikriti (No. 10); trade minister Muhammad Mahdi Salih (No. 48); and Salim Said Khalaf Jumaylia, chief of the American desk of Iraq's intelligence service. Although not ranked in the top 55, he is believed to know the names of Saddam's spies in the United States. Two days later, Pentagon officials reported that U.S. forces had taken custody of deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz (No. 43), the public face of the old Iraqi regime. But only one discovery of the week earned a scandal handle: Gorgeousgate. London Telegraph reporter David Blair stumbled upon paperwork in Baghdad's foreign ministry offices, already looted and smoldering from a cruise-missile attack, suggesting a prominent member of Parliament was on Saddam's payroll. Labor Party MP George Galloway has long been one of the world's leading apologists for Saddam. Now it appears he was more crook than ideologue. A memo to Saddam, signed by the chief of secret police, said the regime was giving Mr. Galloway $600,000 annually. Related memos suggested Mr. Galloway was skimming from the UN's oil for food program, even as he was campaigning to end sanctions using the images of starving Iraqi children. Mr. Galloway vows to sue the Telegraph, but editor Charles Moore (whom the BBC calls a "devout Christian") told readers he is firmly behind the reporter's story.

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